Root-Bernstein & Pawelec: DOI: 10.18536/jge.2016.

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Toward a Geography of Scientific Discovery: Economic Implications of Understanding Where U. S. Nobel Laureates and National Academy of Sciences Members Get Trained

Robert Root-Bernstein
Michigan State University

Kendell Pawelec
Cambridge University

Science always takes place in a place, but how does place affect scientists who produce innovative science? Developing data sets to address this question may be important for the rational distribution of educational and funding resources. The assumption that it is most effective to funnel the majority of research funding into a very small group of acknowledged centers of excellence, and to send the best students to these centers, is only partially validated by a study of where U.S. National Academy of Sciences members and American Nobel laureates are trained. Liberal arts colleges and state universities, rather than elite research universities, are a disproportionate source of undergraduate training for elite United States scientists, and undergraduate talent in science appears to be distributed essentially randomly in proportion to population density. Scientific talent then becomes concentrated (even correcting for population) at the graduate level within a small number of states with first-class (as determined by research funding) research institutions. These elite graduate institutions generally attract and train proportionally very few undergraduates who go onto become elite scientists. Equally surprisingly, many individuals who will become elite scientists are either unable to obtain positions at first-class research institutions, or choose not to, after graduate school, and do their most important research at a far more distributed group of institutions, including a large percentage of governmental, private, and industrial laboratories. Altogether, 205 of the 633 degree-granting institutions in the United States (as of 1978)—or almost exactly a third—contributed to the training of the 1,266 members of the National Academy of Sciences who merited obituary biographies in the Academy’s Memoirs or became Nobel Prize winners between 1880 and 2005. These data suggest that extremely successful scientific innovators are trained and work at a set of institutions that substantially exceeds any definition of elite research status.

Root-Bernstein, R., & Pawelec, K. (2016). Toward a geography of scientific discovery: Economic implications of understanding where U.S. Nobel Laureates and National Academy of Sciences members get trained. Journal of Genius and Eminence, 1(1), 28-42. http://dx.doi.org/10.18536/jge.2016.